Five Resources To Charge Up Your Writing Conferences

 Recently, I joined a professional group/think tank/salon (the social gathering kind) of literacy educators started by the fabulous Christy Curran. At our most recent meeting, we talked at length about methods versus content. Which is more important for teachers – to have methodology down pat, or to really know their subject(s) inside and out?  Put in the context of a writing conference, is it more important for teachers to be skilled at methods, such as researching the writer first and segueing to the teaching going with a compliment, or is it more important for teachers to have a deep sense of the qualities of good writing so that they know exactly what to teach? Most educators probably agree that we need a combination of both, with some of us more likely to stress methods and some of us more likely to stress content.

Certainly, when conferring with a student writer, considering method is important. My writing conferences became immeasurably more successful when I began starting them with a compliment (a move learned from Carl Anderson) rather than launching right into the teaching point.

Today, I shine a spotlight on the content part of a writing conference by sharing some of my favorite resources. When you pull up alongside a student writer, really knowing what makes for better writing will help you to zero in quickly on one thing to teach that will improve his or her writing on the spot.

The following resources are chock-full of tips, strategies, and techniques that you can pull out of your back pocket to help you know exactly what to teach in a huge range of situations.

1. Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark. Every writing teacher should have this book on the shelf. Actually, not on the shelf. This book (or cheat sheets made from it) should be in every writing teacher’s conferring toolkit. Each tip is clear as a bell, and each accompanying explanation is brief yet thorough (important for a busy writing teacher). The explanations also include examples that could certainly be shared with student writers at higher levels.

2. Writersdigest.org. This is a great website aimed at adult writers who want to get published, with plenty of tips that would help student writers, too. I recently enjoyed the article “The Rules of Storytelling, Pixar Style” by Rachel Sheller. Some of the tips, such as #14: ” Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.” will be familiar to writing workshop students and teachers. But others, such as #6:“What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?” feel fresh and specific, and would be great gems to have in one’s back pocket when trying to help student fiction writers to get unstuck or perk things up a bit.

3. The New York Times Learning Network. This is a section of the New York Times online specifically for educators. It is chock-full of lesson plans, ideas, and tips, some written by New York Times contributors, and some submitted by teachers. There are many articles and possible lesson plans on teaching students to write well, like the wonderful article “Writing Rules! Advice from the Times on Writing Well” that are sure to add fuel to your writing conferences. Though many of the lesson plans are not designed specifically for writing workshop classrooms, like the article “I Don’t Think So: Writing Effective Counterarguments,” they contain little gems that will be great to share when sitting alongside a student writer, such as asking students to practice the art of counterarguments with a simpler claim (i.e., angling for a smartphone), before trying counterargument in their own writing with a more complicated claim.

4. The Glamor of Grammar, by Roy Peter Clark. I can’t help but mention Mr. Clark once again. His books on writing are just that good. This fabulous resource is partly an instructional guide to proper grammar usage, to be sure. But its greater value, in a writing conference, anyhow, is in Clark’s explanations of how knowledge of grammar leads to better writing. Tips such as “Use the question mark to generate reader curiosity and narrative energy” and “Vary your use of punctuation to create special effects” will go a long way toward helping students to craft better writing.

5. On Writing Well by William Zinsser. This is, as the subtitle to the book explains, the classic guide to writing nonfiction. Though (and because) it is written for adult writers, its tips are universal, timeless, and practical for student writers as well. Part I on principles of writing nonfiction is particular beneficial, with tips such as how to get rid of clutter in writing and how to make the absolute best word choices to teach readers about the subject. Tips from this book will stand your students in good stead for all future expository writing.

And of course, On Two Writing Teachers, you can find plenty of resources to help with both methods (for example, here, and here) and content (for example, here and here) for writing conferences.

Your turn!

Please share your favorite content resources in the comments section of this post.